Posted on Mi 10 Januar 2024

A re-introduction to mkosi -- A Tool for Generating OS Images

This is a guest post written by Daan De Meyer, systemd and mkosi maintainer

Almost 7 years ago, Lennart first wrote about mkosi on this blog. Some years ago, I took over development and there's been a huge amount of changes and improvements since then. So I figure this is a good time to re-introduce mkosi.

mkosi stands for Make Operating System Image. It generates OS images that can be used for a variety of purposes.

If you prefer watching a video over reading a blog post, you can also watch my presentation on mkosi at All Systems Go 2023.

What is mkosi?

mkosi was originally written as a tool to simplify hacking on systemd and for experimenting with images using many of the new concepts being introduced in systemd at the time. In the meantime, it has evolved into a general purpose image builder that can be used in a multitude of scenarios.

Instructions to install mkosi can be found in its readme. We recommend running the latest version to take advantage of all the latest features and bug fixes. You'll also need bubblewrap and the package manager of your favorite distribution to get started.

At its core, the workflow of mkosi can be divided into 3 steps:

  1. Generate an OS tree for some distribution by installing a set of packages.
  2. Package up that OS tree in a variety of output formats.
  3. (Optionally) Boot the resulting image in qemu or systemd-nspawn.

Images can be built for any of the following distributions:

  • Fedora Linux
  • Ubuntu
  • OpenSUSE
  • Debian
  • Arch Linux
  • CentOS Stream
  • RHEL
  • Rocky Linux
  • Alma Linux

And the following output formats are supported:

  • GPT disk images built with systemd-repart
  • Tar archives
  • CPIO archives (for building initramfs images)
  • USIs (Unified System Images which are full OS images packed in a UKI)
  • Sysext, confext and portable images
  • Directory trees

For example, to build an Arch Linux GPT disk image and boot it in qemu, you can run the following command:

$ mkosi -d arch -p systemd -p udev -p linux -t disk qemu

To instead boot the image in systemd-nspawn, replace qemu with boot:

$ mkosi -d arch -p systemd -p udev -p linux -t disk boot

The actual image can be found in the current working directory named image.raw. However, using a separate output directory is recommended which is as simple as running mkdir mkosi.output.

To rebuild the image after it's already been built once, add -f to the command line before the verb to rebuild the image. Any arguments passed after the verb are forwarded to either systemd-nspawn or qemu itself. To build the image without booting it, pass build instead of boot or qemu or don't pass a verb at all.

By default, the disk image will have an appropriately sized root partition and an ESP partition, but the partition layout and contents can be fully customized using systemd-repart by creating partition definition files in mkosi.repart/. This allows you to customize the partition as you see fit:

  • The root partition can be encrypted.
  • Partition sizes can be customized.
  • Partitions can be protected with signed dm-verity.
  • You can opt out of having a root partition and only have a /usr partition instead.
  • You can add various other partitions, e.g. an XBOOTLDR partition or a swap partition.
  • ...

As part of building the image, we'll run various tools such as systemd-sysusers, systemd-firstboot, depmod, systemd-hwdb and more to make sure the image is set up correctly.

Configuring mkosi image builds

Naturally with extended use you don't want to specify all settings on the command line every time, so mkosi supports configuration files where the same settings that can be specified on the command line can be written down.

For example, the command we used above can be written down in a configuration file mkosi.conf:




Like systemd, mkosi uses INI configuration files. We also support dropins which can be placed in mkosi.conf.d. Configuration files can also be conditionalized using the [Match] section. For example, to only install a specific package on Arch Linux, you can write the following to mkosi.conf.d/10-arch.conf:



Because not everything you need will be supported in mkosi, we support running scripts at various points during the image build process where all extra image customization can be done. For example, if it is found, mkosi.postinst is called after packages have been installed. Scripts are executed on the host system by default (in a sandbox), but can be executed inside the image by suffixing the script with .chroot, so if mkosi.postinst.chroot is found it will be executed inside the image.

To add extra files to the image, you can place them in mkosi.extra in the source directory and they will be automatically copied into the image after packages have been installed.

Bootable images

If the necessary packages are installed, mkosi will automatically generate a UEFI/BIOS bootable image. As mkosi is a systemd project, it will always build UKIs (Unified Kernel Images), except if the image is BIOS-only (since UKIs cannot be used on BIOS). The initramfs is built like a regular image by installing distribution packages and packaging them up in a CPIO archive instead of a disk image. Specifically, we do not use dracut, mkinitcpio or initramfs-tools to generate the initramfs from the host system. ukify is used to assemble all the individual components into a UKI.

If you don't want mkosi to generate a bootable image, you can set Bootable=no to explicitly disable this logic.

Using mkosi for development

The main requirements to use mkosi for development is that we can build our source code against the image we're building and install it into the image we're building. mkosi supports this via build scripts. If a script named (or is found, we'll execute it as part of the build. Any files put by the build script into $DESTDIR will be installed into the image. Required build dependencies can be installed using the BuildPackages= setting. These packages are installed into an overlay which is put on top of the image when running the build script so the build packages are available when running the build script but don't end up in the final image.

An example script for a project using meson could look as follows:

meson setup "$BUILDDIR" "$SRCDIR"
ninja -C "$BUILDDIR"
if ((WITH_TESTS)); then
    meson test -C "$BUILDDIR"
meson install -C "$BUILDDIR"

Now, every time the image is built, the build script will be executed and the results will be installed into the image.

The $BUILDDIR environment variable points to a directory that can be used as the build directory for build artifacts to allow for incremental builds if the build system supports it.

Of course, downloading all packages from scratch every time and re-installing them again every time the image is built is rather slow, so mkosi supports two modes of caching to speed things up.

The first caching mode caches all downloaded packages so they don't have to be downloaded again on subsequent builds. Enabling this is as simple as running mkdir mkosi.cache.

The second mode of caching caches the image after all packages have been installed but before running the build script. On subsequent builds, mkosi will copy the cache instead of reinstalling all packages from scratch. This mode can be enabled using the Incremental= setting. While there is some rudimentary cache invalidation, the cache can also forcibly be rebuilt by specifying -ff on the command line instead of -f.

Note that when running on a btrfs filesystem, mkosi will automatically use subvolumes for the cached images which can be snapshotted on subsequent builds for even faster rebuilds. We'll also use reflinks to do copy-on-write copies where possible.

With this setup, by running mkosi -f qemu in the systemd repository, it takes about 40 seconds to go from a source code change to a root shell in a virtual machine running the latest systemd with your change applied. This makes it very easy to test changes to systemd in a safe environment without risk of breaking your host system.

Of course, while 40 seconds is not a very long time, it's still more than we'd like, especially if all we're doing is modifying the kernel command line. That's why we have the KernelCommandLineExtra= option to configure kernel command line options that are passed to the container or virtual machine at runtime instead of being embedded into the image. These extra kernel command line options are picked up when the image is booted with qemu's direct kernel boot (using -append), but also when booting a disk image in UEFI mode (using SMBIOS). The same applies to systemd credentials (using the Credentials= setting). These settings allow configuring the image without having to rebuild it, which means that you only have to run mkosi qemu or mkosi boot again afterwards to apply the new settings.

Building images without root privileges and loop devices

By using newuidmap/newgidmap and systemd-repart, mkosi is able to build images without needing root privileges. As long as proper subuid and subgid mappings are set up for your user in /etc/subuid and /etc/subgid, you can run mkosi as your regular user without having to switch to root.

Note that as of the writing of this blog post this only applies to the build and qemu verbs. Booting the image in a systemd-nspawn container with mkosi boot still needs root privileges. We're hoping to fix this in an future systemd release.

Regardless of whether you're running mkosi with root or without root, almost every tool we execute is invoked in a sandbox to isolate as much of the build process from the host as possible. For example, /etc and /var from the host are not available in this sandbox, to avoid host configuration inadvertently affecting the build.

Because systemd-repart can build disk images without loop devices, mkosi can run from almost any environment, including containers. All that's needed is a UID range with 65536 UIDs available, either via running as the root user or via /etc/subuid and newuidmap. In a future systemd release, we're hoping to provide an alternative to newuidmap and /etc/subuid to allow running mkosi from all containers, even those with only a single UID available.

Supporting older distributions

mkosi depends on very recent versions of various systemd tools (v254 or newer). To support older distributions, we implemented so called tools trees. In short, mkosi can first build a tools image for you that contains all required tools to build the actual image. This can be enabled by adding ToolsTree=default to your mkosi configuration. Building a tools image does not require a recent version of systemd.

In the systemd mkosi configuration, we automatically use a tools tree if we detect your distribution does not have the minimum required systemd version installed.

Configuring variants of the same image using profiles

Profiles can be defined in the mkosi.profiles/ directory. The profile to use can be selected using the Profile= setting (or --profile=) on the command line. A profile allows you to bundle various settings behind a single recognizable name. Profiles can also be matched on if you want to apply some settings only to a few profiles.

For example, you could have a bootable profile that sets Bootable=yes, adds the linux and systemd-boot packages and configures Format=disk to end up with a bootable disk image when passing --profile bootable on the kernel command line.

Building system extension images

System extension images may – dynamically at runtime — extend the base system with an overlay containing additional files.

To build system extensions with mkosi, we need a base image on top of which we can build our extension.

To keep things manageable, we'll make use of mkosi's support for building multiple images so that we can build our base image and system extension in one go.

We start by creating a temporary directory with a base configuration file mkosi.conf with some shared settings:


Now let's continue with the base image definition by writing the following to mkosi.images/base/mkosi.conf:



We use the directory output format here instead of the disk output so that we can build our extension without needing root privileges.

Now that we have our base image, we can define a sysext that builds on top of it by writing the following to mkosi.images/btrfs/mkosi.conf:




BaseTrees= point to our base image and Overlay=yes instructs mkosi to only package the files added on top of the base tree.

We can't sign the extension image without a key. We can generate one by running mkosi genkey which will generate files that are automatically picked up when building the image.

Finally, you can build the base image and the extensions by running mkosi -f. You'll find btrfs.raw in mkosi.output which is the extension image.

Various other interesting features

  • To sign any generated UKIs for secure boot, put your secure boot key and certificate in mkosi.key and mkosi.crt and enable the SecureBoot= setting. You can also run mkosi genkey to have mkosi generate a key and certificate itself.
  • The Ephemeral= setting can be enabled to boot the image in an ephemeral copy that is thrown away when the container or virtual machine exits.
  • ShimBootloader= and BiosBootloader= settings are available to configure shim and grub installation if needed.
  • mkosi can boot directory trees in a virtual using virtiofsd. This is very useful for quickly rebuilding an image and booting it as the image does not have to be packed up as a disk image.
  • ...

There's many more features that we won't go over in detail here in this blog post. Learn more about those by reading the documentation.


I'll finish with a bunch of links to more information about mkosi and related tooling:

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